The French poet and writer Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855) was an early romantic. His prose and poetry mark him as a precursor of the many movements, from symbolism to surrealism, that shaped modern French literature.
Gérard de Nerval was born Gérard Labrunie on May 22, 1808, in Paris. Because of his parents' immediate departure for Silesia, where his mother died, Nerval was taken to the home of maternal relatives in the Valois. This region played a prominent part in many of his works. The fact that his early years were bereft of parental care probably contributed to his subsequent lack of mental equilibrium.
Upon his father's return from the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Nerval returned to Paris. As a day pupil at the Lycée Charlemagne, he distinguished himself by his precocious literary gifts and made the acquaintance of a lifelong friend, the poet Théophile Gautier.
Nerval's translation in 1827 of J. W. von Goethe's Faust (Part I) earned him the praise of Goethe and opened influential Parisian literary circles to him. His admiration for Victor Hugo converted him to the romantic movement. In the 1830s Nerval belonged to the petit cénacle, a group of minor artistic figures that gravitated around Gautier.
In 1834 Nerval received an inheritance from his maternal grandparents that enabled him to pursue exclusively the literary career of which his father disapproved. Nerval gave up his nominal study of medicine and made a brief trip to Italy, a tour that had a powerful and lasting effect on his imagination.
Meanwhile, Nerval fell in love with Jenny Colon, an actress, for whom he founded a theatrical review, Le Monde dramatique. It failed after 2 years. The brilliant and gay life that Nerval led during this brief period of prosperity was succeeded by a lifetime of financial difficulties and personal sadness. The poet lost both his small patrimony and Jenny Colon, who married another. During this period Nerval centered his main literary efforts on the theater, a genre basically uncongenial to his talents. In spite of an occasional success, such as Piquillo (1837), his efforts in the theater generally met with failure.
The years 1839-1841 were ones of growing eccentricities and depression for Nerval. His translation of Faust (Part II), which appeared in 1840, culminated in a mental breakdown that caused him to be hospitalized in 1841. His mental stability thus shattered, Nerval's life became more precarious and difficult because he depended upon his pen for his living. In order to mend his health, Nerval made a trip to the Orient in 1843. His health regained, he published articles dealing with his travels in serial form in various periodicals. During these years of remission from mental breakdown, he also published chronicles, essays, poems, and novellas in many magazines, all the time trying unsuccessfully to establish himself in the theater. He also traveled in foreign countries and in the Valois. Wandering had become a temperamental necessity, and it is an important theme in his major works.
In 1848 Nerval published his translation of Heinrich Heine's poetry. In 1851 Le Voyage en Orient appeared. Under the guise of a travelog, it concerned itself with the pilgrimage of a soul, being more revealing of the inner geography of Nerval than of Egypt, Lebanon, or Turkey.
Nerval's major works were all written in the last few years of his life under the threat of incurable insanity. A serious relapse in 1851 marked him irrevocably. In 1852 he published Les Illuminés, a series of biographical sketches of unorthodox and original figures. In 1853 Les Petits châteaux de Bohême appeared. It was a nostalgic recounting of his happy years. It also contained the Odelettes, early poems in the manner of Pierre de Ronsard. Nerval then published his best and most famous story, Sylvie, in the Revue des deux mondes. In this tale he explored the sources of memory and transfigured the Valois of his childhood. It was included in Les Filles du feu in 1854. That same year Les Chimères, a series of 12 hermetic sonnets, also appeared.
During this period Nerval was also writing an autobiographical work, Les Nuits d'Octobre, and Aurélia, his last and most occult work. In Aurélia Nerval described the experience of madness and his attempt to overcome it by means of the written word.
In January 1855, destitute and desperate, Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself in a Parisian alley.
Further Reading on Gérard de Nerval
Two full-length studies of Nerval are Solomon A. Rhodes, Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer (1951), and Alfred Dubruck, Gérard de Nerval and the German Heritage (1965).